No, the government didn’t spend $4 billion to support the arts – Monash Lens

Canberra think tank A New Approach published an interesting article last week on the state of public funding for Australian arts and culture.

The report makes bold claims about the level of support given to arts and culture during the pandemic.

Specifically, A New Approach claims that “arts and culture organizations and businesses accessed over $4 billion in COVID support in the last four months of fiscal year 2019-2020.”

The large number would have surprised many cultural sector players who have weathered the pandemic with little or no government support.

Sure enough, the figure was picked up in a Nine Newspapers story, which led with the headline “Billions in Crisis Payments Flowing to Arts.”

With top contemporary music venues in Sydney and Melbourne announcing their closures last week, you could be forgiven for wondering where all those billions went.


Read more: The John Curtin Hotel is a home for Melbourne musicians, activists and trade unionists. Closing it is a loss for our cultural heritage


Unfortunately for the cultural sector, if you dig into the statistics, the $4 billion figure is indeed too good to be true. A new approach has misinterpreted some fuzzy data from the federal government, significantly overestimating the amount of support given to Australian culture in 2020.

Measuring the “creative sector”

Figures for a new approach come from the Federal Government, in particular from a set of reports from the Culture Ministers’ Meeting on funding and involvement of Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments.

If you look at the Commonwealth report for 2019-20, there is indeed a statement on COVID support. The report says the federal government “spent $4,272 million in COVID support funding for eligible organizations, businesses and individuals in the creative and cultural industries.”

This figure was made up of:

  • $3,065.3 million in JobKeeper

  • $1,168.4 million in Boosting Cash Flow for Employers, and

  • $38.4 million in arts portfolio grants.

Even so, $4 billion in federal stimulus in just four months sounds huge. Was there really that much money in the sector?

As always when it comes to statistics, the answer comes down to how you define “the industry”. The reason JobKeeper’s number seems so high is that the federal government’s definition of cultural and creative industries is very broad.

Drawing on an Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) definition of the cultural and creative sector from 2008-09, this definition not only includes core arts and cultural activities, but also large parts of the rest of the economy.

Industries in the net include significant portions of the manufacturing and retail sectors, such as the manufacturing and retailing of apparel, footwear, and jewelry; software publishing and design of computer systems; zoos and parks; The advertisement; and architecture.

Much of the clothing retail industry is also included in the Australian ‘creative sector’ figures. Photo: Digby Cheung/Unsplash

This same expansive approach was taken by the government’s Bureau of Communications and Arts Research in 2018 to give a total figure for the size of the cultural and creative sector of $111.7 billion in 2016-17. But again, the devil is in the details.

Of that $111.7 billion, the largest component was the technology-rich design industry, valued at around $43 billion. Fashion was second, valued at around $14 billion. Compare that to the performing arts, with gross value added in 2016-17 of just $1.7 billion.

The reasons for including these sectors go back to old debates about the size and shape of the “creative” sector. When the statistics were compiled, ABS made a serious attempt to capture the associated activity that fueled creative supply chains.

But the Department for the Arts doesn’t break down its JobKeeper figures by industry, so we don’t actually know how much funding has gone to core arts and culture sectors like performing arts, galleries and museums, or artists and independent creators.


Read more: Friday essay: A world of pain – Australian theater in crisis


Exaggerated numbers

In reality, it is likely that the majority of this money did not go to closed concert halls or closed theaters. The inclusion of the entire apparel and footwear sector in these numbers is an important clue as to where most of the stimulus has likely been spent.

As we know from their annual reports, major retail outlets collectively banked billions in support of JobKeeper during the pandemic (even though some of them still turned a profit).

JobKeeper was ideal for workers at companies such as Best & Less and Just Jeans. But this funding was not actually support for culture or artists, and the inclusion of these sectors in the data shows how misleading the $4 billion figure is.

By highlighting an inflated figure for cultural stimulation, A New Approach’s report glosses over some very real problems with the federal response to the pandemic crisis.

Tens of thousands of artists and cultural workers were not eligible for JobKeeper because they were casual workers with precarious work patterns.


Read more: Government says artists should be able to access JobKeeper payments. It is not that simple


Other parts of the sector, including art galleries and museums run by local and state governments and public universities, were excluded from JobKeeper due to the way the program was designed.

The most recent detailed labor force data from the ABS shows that employment in arts and culture has not recovered to 2019 levels.

In the three years since its creation by prominent philanthropists, A New Approach has published a number of thoughtful reports. The organization describes itself as “Australia’s leading arts and culture think tank”, and says it is “objective” and “evidence-driven”.

Given this, it is disappointing that A New Approach has decided to lump together exaggerated government data and turn it into cultural funding.

The conversation

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

James C. Tibbs